The White House welcomed ex-general Thein Sein on Monday as the first president of Burma to visit in roughly 47 years after the late Gen. Ne Win’s visit in 1966. Thein Sein has been attempting to improve diplomatic relations for Burma (also known as Myanmar) after decades of isolation from the US.
Self-styled reformist President Thein Sein has been in office for two years. Thein Sein’s reforms have been welcomed by the US but many at grassroots level in Burma feel they have made little real difference on the ground. The working class, including farmers, refuse to accept the current situation as genuine change.
The most crucial question of political reform that President Obama should not overlook is the economic monopolization by the military elite. They have been exploiting the country’s natural resources under the names of the Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings Limited (UMEHL) and the Myanmar Economic Corporation (MEC) while the country’s average population has suffered from various social miseries.
In the name of change, a quasi-civilian government led by Thein Sein was formed with former military generals. Not surprisingly, this has done little to allay the fears of citizens who continue to live under an undemocratic regime defined by the 2008 Constitution drawn by the previous junta.
The 2008 Constitution came into place after a sham referendum in May 2008 held in the wake of Cyclone Nargis, which caused more than 138,000 deaths and left millions homeless. The biggest flaw in the constitution is that 25 percent of seats in the parliament are reserved for unelected military generals nominated by the commander-in-chief.
Many ethnic leaders claim that they don’t trust the 2008 Constitution, which ensures the military still holds a huge amount of power in Burma. For example, the 11-member National Defense and Security Council retains the constitutional right to declare an emergency at any time.
Ahead of Thein Sein’s flight to the US his government released 23 prisoners, of which 19 are confirmed to be political prisoners according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma), through a so-called amnesty. Human rights groups say more than 100 political prisoners are still held.
Many political leaders want the US President to pressure Thein Sein to stop aggressive wars against ethnic people. If the Thein Sein government wants to be a true reformist administration, it has to stop the wars in Shan and Kachin states.
Thein Sein’s reforms have done little to stop land grabs by the military, local authorities and government cronies. As a result, the people are suffering severe unemployment in a country where five million citizens have already migrated to neighboring countries in search of work. Most of the migrants are in Thailand and Malaysia due to unemployment and food shortage problems.
Burma remains one of the world’s least developed countries, and was ranked 149 out of 187 countries in the 2011 UN Human Development Index. Burma was ranked 172 out of 176 in the world by Transparency International’s annual Corruption Perceptions Index in 2012 – fifth from bottom above Sudan, Afghanistan, North Korea and Somalia.
President Obama should encourage President Thein Sein to have candid political objectives, such as to release all political prisoners immediately, to declare a nationwide ceasefire to show a commitment to meaningful political dialogue with all dissident groups, and to broadcast a general amnesty in the quest for peace, stability and real progress in the multi-ethnic country.
The time is not ripe yet for President Obama to welcome Thein Sein without question as Burma still has a long way to go.